There are at least two types of individualism. The first relates to individual responsibility, and here left-liberals do seem to be more collectivist. Whereas a right-liberal will stress the ideal of self-reliance and the aim of successful competition in the market, left-liberals are more likely to claim that "it takes a village to raise a child" or to stress the need for social security.
The second kind of individualism relates to identity. Right-liberals often strongly oppose the notion of collective identity (think Jordan Peterson), seeing it as an affront to the sovereignty of the individual. They see themselves as defenders of individualism against the collectivism of leftist identity politics.
But it's not as straightforward as this. Leftist identity politics has a lot of individualistic assumptions built into it. As an example, consider the following criticism of Jordan Peterson's politics by Anne Gallagher in The Spectator. Gallagher is criticising Peterson from the left. She gives this as one of the reasons she became disenchanted with Peterson:
The first relates to Peterson’s conviction (shared by many conservatives and some progressives) that the bulk of our current social and political ills are the fault of ‘identity politics’: of groups organising and advocating on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, gender orientation, etc. This idea is attractive because it helps us to make sense of the sharp divisions we see everywhere in public life. It also presents the alluring prospect of a quick fix: by eliminating identity politics we can somehow make whole what is so badly broken.
But the truth is likely much messier. As one African-American debate opponent pointed out to him, racial identity was not something that black Americans happily assumed for themselves. It was imposed by force in order to separate them from the dominant identity and, through that separation, to withhold basic rights and freedoms. The same goes for women and other disempowered groups that are now using their externally imposed ‘identity’ to seek more space, more opportunities and greater power. It is those who inflicted the identity in the first place – and who sense a threat to the disproportionate space, opportunities and power they have enjoyed as a result – who are made most uncomfortable by ‘identity politics’. Peterson is right that identity politics, taken to the extreme, represent a threat to valuable liberal ideas about the primacy and sovereignty of the individual. But his unwillingness (or inability) to explore contradictions and inconsistencies, and his simmering displeasure when they are noted, is telling.
This is an admirably clear statement of leftist identity politics. It assumes that group identity is wholly unnatural and that it is forced onto minority groups as an act of oppression and disempowerment. These groups then use this artificially imposed identity to fight back against the oppressor.
Canadian professor, Dr Ricardo Duchesne, draws out this point about the individualist assumptions underlying leftist identity politics in the following:
It is not that one side is into identity politics and another is not. Insomuch as leftists say that males and females are really equal, they are saying that males and females are just individuals. The difference is that for the left the playing field in the West still favours males, and for this reason leftists insist that we must play identity politics. While leftists are always finding new victims, in principle their identity politics is meant to be temporary. They want a future individualistic world in which social conditions allow for the development of the full potentialities of all individuals regardless of race and sex.
...The same logic applies to the way postmodernists use racial categories. They don't believe in races. They believe that in our current society minorities are "racialized" by dominant Whites, and that overcoming this racial hierarchy necessitates race identity politics. Their aim is to transcend altogether any form of racial identity for the sake of a society in which everyone is judged as an individual.
Leftist identity politics is extraordinary when you think about it. It requires us to believe, for instance, that women only have a distinct female identity because men "inflicted" it on them, imposing it "by force." It makes a female identity sound like a terrible thing to have, a punishment; it gives to men an almost god-like power of creating a female identity out of nothing; and it ignores the more obvious natural origins of women identifying as women.
So leftist identity politics does lead to "collective action" but the underlying philosophy is individualistic. The answer to it is not a right-liberal rejection of identity. This only leaves the targets of leftist identity politics weakly disorganised and unable to defend themselves.
And, more than this, humans are relational creatures. So you do not defend the individual by making him autonomous of others or by denying the sense of identity, belonging, connectedness, commitment and security that comes with membership of natural human communities (see here for a defence of identity).
A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.